Fantasy Reads – `Thirteenth Child’

This week I’m recommending a novel which should appeal to connoisseurs of invented magic. “Thirteenth Child” (2009) by Patricia C.Wrede is the first in the “Frontier Magic” trilogy, which is set in an alternate version of mid 19th century America. It tells the story of Eff, the “cursed” youngest daughter of the magically talented Rothmer family. This and the two sequels, “Across the Great Barrier” (2011) and “The Far West” (2012), are available in paperback or as ebooks. “Thirteenth Child” covers the first eighteen years of our heroine’s life.

Daniel Rothmer and his wife Sara live in one of the United States of Columbia. The couple have fourteen children, the youngest being Francine (Eff) and her twin-brother Lan. Right from birth, Lan is regarded as special because he is a “double seven” and “everybody knows that the seventh son of a seventh son is a natural-born magician”. In contrast, thirteenth children like Eff are regarded as horribly unlucky and bound to “go bad”. Eff’s parents don’t believe in this superstition but other members of the extended Rothmer family do, so she is bullied or shunned by many of her relatives. When Eff is only five, one of her uncles tries to denounce her as a witch. After this distressing  incident the family moves to the North Plains Territory.

Daniel Rothmer becomes a Professor of Avrupan Magic at a new college in Mill City, a frontier town on the east bank of the Mammoth River. Mill City is also just the right side of the Great Barrier – a magical force-field set up by Benjamin Franklin and President Jefferson in the previous century. The Great Barrier protects Columbians from the beasts, both natural (mammoths, wolves, woolly rhinoceroses, etc.) and magical (steam dragons, spectral bears, sphinxes etc.) which roam the Western Plains. At the college, Professor Rothmer trains the magicians who are needed to protect the pioneering land-grant settlers on the Western Plains.

Since some of her older siblings have stayed behind in the East, Eff is able to disguise the fact that she is a thirteenth child and make a new start. As the years pass, Lan lives up to his promise as a brilliant young magician. Eff shows no talent for Avrupan magic but she is encouraged by her class teacher, Miss Ochiba, to study Aphrikan magic – which looks at the world in a very different way. After Lan goes back East for a while to study magic, Eff develops a particular interest in the extraordinary animals that live beyond the Great Barrier. When Eff gets to go on a study trip to the West Bank with her father and Lan, the Rothmers are confronted by a magical plague. Can the twins work together to save the settlers from disaster?

I’ve already mentioned Patricia C. Wrede as the writing partner of Caroline Stevermer (see my July 2017 post on Stevermer’s “When the King Comes Home”). Their delightful “Cecelia and Kate” novels are now available in a one volume edition. A recommendation for one of Wrede’s solo novels is long overdue since she is a consistently entertaining and inventive writer. I’ve enjoyed her dragon-centred “Enchanted Forest  Chronicles” and her Georgette Heyer-influenced “Magic and Malice” duology but I decided to pick the first of her “Frontier Magic” series because of its unusual Wild West setting. Wrede has created a fascinating history for her version of the USA and for its neighbouring countries such as Vinland and New Asante. The reader has to be piece this history together from brief references in Eff’s account of her life and times. Her Columbia has had a revolution to gain independence from the Avrupan (European) powers and an early war of Secession ending in 1838. There are important black characters in the story but I was surprised that there don’t seem to be any Native Americans. As I’m British, this isn’t my history so I’ll make no further comment.

You may have noticed that my synopsis says more about the background to the story than the story itself. This reflects the nature of the book. “Thirteenth Child” is more of a leisurely family saga than a thrilling adventure. The dramatic events, which include a dragon attack and the dangerous first manifestation of Lan’s powers, are well spaced out. Some promising plot-lines, such as a potential conflict between magic-using settlers and the Society of Progressive Rationalists, never really go anywhere. Instead, the book concentrates on secretive Eff’s hidden thoughts and feelings during her childhood and early teenage years. I was intrigued by Eff’s complicated home life –  Wrede showed me what it might be like to have numerous siblings. Overall, I found “Thirteenth Child” a soothing but addictive read. By the later chapters I was almost as keen as Eff to get over the river to the wild West Bank. The second and third volumes in the Frontier Magic trilogy are closer to being adventure stories since they are mainly set in the perilous lands beyond the Great Barrier.

Wrede’s flair for describing monsters and magic is one of the great strengths of this trilogy.  I love the way that her Columbia is still inhabited by the creatures which roamed the continent of America in prehistoric times. Mammoth-handling becomes one of Eff’s special skills and she learns to defend herself with a rifle against aggressive prides of saber-tooth cats. In the course of the trilogy, Wrede introduces a wide range of scary magical beasts. Dragons and sphinxes may be relatively common in Fantasy fiction but this series also has terror birds, medusa lizards, giant invisible foxes and lethal swarming-weasels. In “Thirteenth Child” the magical creatures which cause the most trouble are the innocuous-sounding mirror bugs (based on the Colorado Beetle?) which threaten to make farming impossible on the Plains.

Inventing one convincing system of magic is quite an achievement but “Thirteenth Child” has three – Avrupan magic, which is analytical and technical, Hijero-Cathayan magic which is intense and group-oriented and Aphrikan magic which is observational and intuitive. Promising young magicians learning from a wise older person is a common plot element in Fantasy fiction but few teachers of magic have impressed me as much as Wrede’s Maryann Ochiba, a formidable woman who introduces her students to the art of “world sensing” because, “To be a good magician, you must see in many ways…You must be willing to learn from different sources. And you must always remember that the truths you see are incomplete.” It is Eff, rather than her powerful brother, who follows this teaching and manages to combine the three schools of magic in a new way.

Throughout the story, golden boy Lan’s overconfidence is contrasted with his twin’s lack of self-confidence. Eff tells her own story. Her sparky narrative is full of  shrewdness and humour but Wrede allows the reader to see that Eff has been far more traumatized by the “thirteenth child stigma” than her loved ones realize. She admits that she has “spent a large part of my life being scared of myself and my magic”. Mentors like Miss Ochiba and war-veteran and roving magician, Wash Morris, help Eff to trust her own moral sense and put her unique powers to good use. There is a romance sub-plot in the trilogy but Eff makes it very clear that she doesn’t “want to get married just because most of my sisters had.” It is more important to Eff, to find fulfilling work to do which will make a positive difference to her world. Watching Eff grow in confidence is one of the big rewards for reading the whole “Frontier Magic” trilogy.

I’ll finish this post with a preemptive apology. Due to domestic upheavals (of a pleasant kind), Fantasy Reads will be appearing less regularly for the next few months. In the meantime, there are over 180 previous recommendations to explore. I wish everyone good reading….



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Geraldine Pinch